Barriers remain as Govt loosens medicinal cannabis access

The New Zealand Drug Foundation says patients are unlikely to see a great improvement in access to medicinal cannabis, following an announcement shifting sign-off on medical cannabis products away from the Associate Health Minister's office.

The Government announced on Wednesday morning that decision-making will now sit with the Ministry of Health.

That doesn't quite square with what Health Minister Jonathan Coleman told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the announcement.

Dr Coleman had said it was probably unnecessary to have a minister sign off on the drug, and the Government was looking at a "less bureaucratic" approach.

He went on to say that "it might be specialist access, that's probably more likely than [having] a GP sign it off."

But specialists won't be able to sign off on access to the drug themselves - they will send applications to the Ministry of Health for their approval.

Dr Coleman's office says he was taking questions on the health system in general, and "in general, he thinks there is room for improvement."

In a press release announcing the change, Mr Dunne said the process will be similar to the one put in place for pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.

Now that guidelines have been developed and "any risk associated with the early processes has largely abated," Mr Dunne says he's comfortable with responsibility sitting with the Ministry of Health.

The former process had been criticised as slow and frustrating.

Medicinal cannabis campaigner Rose Renton illegally gave medicinal cannabis to her dying son. She says the Government's finally waking up to modern science, but it's still not enough.

"If you are sick and you can't sleep and you're in pain, every day you have to wait is too long," she told Newshub.

"Obviously, National are realising that this change needs to be made, and they are making it. Any progress forward to allow people to use cannabis for their condition is positive."

But patients are still likely to still face huge barriers in their attempts to access the drug, said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Mr Bell said the cost and availability of the products, as well as sceptical specialists, will remain challenges.

Only two pharmaceutical-grade products are available in New Zealand: Sativex and Tilray, and neither are funded by Pharmac.

Tilray is about $600 a month. Sativex costs patients around $1200 a month through a district health board.

Pharmac does not fund Sativex because they "foolishly think [it] will get diverted into the recreational cannabis market," Mr Bell said.

"Kiwis can get their hands on pot. They are not going to settle for a mouth spray," he said.

Alongside the issue of cost, Mr Bell says there are medical specialists who are "deeply sceptical" about the benefits of medical cannabis, and who "need convincing" to lodge an application.

He says some are stymying attempts to access the drugs "because they like prescription medicines that have gone through research trials" and because of questions about how the drug will interact with other medicines.

The Green Party has echoed concern over the cost of the drugs and access to the medicines.

"New Zealanders should be able to access medical cannabis as easily and as cheaply as they do any other prescription drug. The announcement today doesn't allow that to happen," says Green Party health spokesperson Julie Anne Genter.

In the press release sent out on Wednesday morning, Mr Dunne said he intends to write to the New Zealand Medical Association and the Pharmacy Society of New Zealand, outlining his decision and saying he expects medical professionals to keep an open mind regarding the prescription of cannabis-based products.

He intends to include a list of internationally available cannabis-based products to provide clarity on the issue.